The #WorkLifeShow: How to Handle the Xmas Office Party

Amy Roberts   7 December, 2019

We sat down with Rebecca Bull from MyHRhub to hear her tips on how to survive the year end party at the office. She also shares her insights into the biggest HR mistakes that businesses make when they're starting out. 


Can you tell me a little bit about what you do? 


I run my own HR consultancy which started seven years ago, part time, and then I decided to take the plunge three and a half years ago and to spend all my time and effort developing the business. The business is called myHRhub and I'm based in the Midlands, although working with clients all over the UK and Europe and some overseas, further afield. The consultancy is based on a generalist model that I've been working on for the last 20 years, in HR, in large organisations across the world. I had a real passion for startups and I wanted to help startup businesses and SMEs (small-medium-sized enterprises) as well as fast growth companies because that was the experience I had in my previous roles, in head of HR roles. I was just very keen on helping lots of businesses at the same time and that's very difficult to do if you are working for an organization, so myHRhub was born. It's a pick a mix model and it's working very much in partnership with the suppliers that I worked with previously in the corporate world. I partnered with them, approached them, to say this is my idea would you like to work with me and help all these small businesses just get along because life's hard enough effectively. They were wonderful and said yes we want to work with you and carry on working with you. 


Can you tell me a little bit about the specific challenges that those startups, small businesses and rapid growth businesses face, that you might not think of when you're traditionally dealing with HR for a big company?


That's a great question. It's really broad so my clients range from a one-man band, literally starting up and wanting to get general advice on infrastructure and frameworks. My largest client is about 500. I choose to stay within that area rather than go much bigger than that. I previously worked in about 15 startups and fast growths. I know what's coming over the hill so I can help them work and develop the businesses to start from very basic standard handbooks, contracts for example (which is employment law, you have to have those things in place), right through to starting to recruit their first members of staff and then as they go along it's quite a cyclical process so they'll go through wanting to know more about staff engagement, when they've got perhaps 10-20 employees, then they'll probably want to understand more about team dynamics so we can help them with psychometric testing and then they may get to a point where they want to talk about strategy, mergers, acquisitions and globalization. It really is very very different and which is why I love my job so much because of the variety and the different sectors that I am able to work in now, which is probably about 25 different industries I cover. So no day is the same and that is kind of how I really enjoy it.


For those startups out there and those businesses beginning from scratch, they've got money and they've got to manage it. How much of a return do people see when they invest in HR? Some might be a bit reluctant to spend the money on good HR advice but what sort of returns does it give to a business?


I was trained 20 years ago at Trent University in Nottingham, the Business School and we could not graduate without doing our business degree as well as the CIPD which is the HR qualification. At the time I was thought ‘It's a year of my life I'm never going to get back,’ but now I can see why because it's all about business, it's a business context and HR professionals that really understand businesses can get under the skin of a business and convince the managing directors that this isn't just about contracts and disciplinary processes. This goes much more towards the bottom line at how the company is perceived, affects attraction and retention of employees and general engagement of employees too. My model is very much based on employee engagement, reward and recognition and recruiting more around the fast growth organizations than your traditional employee relations HR consulting that is constantly working through disciplinaries and grievances. I'm more focused on the high growth. Most of the MDs in a high growth mindset understand that people are really intrinsic to that growth and the success of the business so I have probably less a harder time of convincing these managers, MDs or CEOs, that they need to adopt really good people practices in order for them to get and achieve their business goals. Most of them are there especially if they have gone through education where they've really understood the people element and how important that is. There are organizations where they are quite anti, really embracing the HR role and I think that's due to lack of understanding. The HR role traditionally has been fun police, somebody in the corner that is ticking the boxes. That's the very old-style HR. That word itself, I don't particularly agree with, it's just about resources, you know, what's that all about? It's [actually] about people and the more you understand people and what motivates them, the more you can really get the best from them. That's what businesses should be doing, is getting the best from their employees. To where the sweet spots are. What do they have to do to really bring out the best of those, bring out the best of employees?


Just on that point in making a business appealing. We hear stories about what it's like to work for Google or Facebook or one of those big companies that prides itself on investing in employees. Do you have some fun examples of companies that you've seen that do something, go the extra mile for their staff? 


I'm very lucky with the companies I worked for previously but also some of the businesses that I support at the moment. There are lots of different organizations that do different things. Some examples of engaging events that some of the more innovative businesses do, very recently this week in fact, they invited all of their teams to take part in their Christmas wreath making evening. This is a very fantastic business in Nottingham and it was in the evening, in the office, you know, they had to be honest and snacks and food and drinks and things and they were all making Christmas wreaths. I thought that was really quite cool and other companies organized summer events. They rented teepees and they had campfires etc. 


Do you find that these companies see a real return when they do invest in employees? When they do adopt that new HR approach of trying to lure people rather than just being the fun police as you said? Do they see results in return?


I definitely think they do and for me I guess starting my own business was very much around me wanting to work within my own values. Which is making a difference being creative and being passionate and it was a gamble because I had to find businesses that I wanted to work with that really wanted to be good with people and engage employees and I was lucky enough to find enough businesses that actually want to be great employers. My support to the businesses that I work with is purely around becoming employers of choice so people will choose to work for these companies, if they could. Lots of the work we do together with them is on that basis. We are really trying to find the individual motivations of each employee to ensure that they can actually have a really fulfilling career. I think it's getting more challenging, you know, the epidemic with mental health at the moment which is doesn't discriminate over kind of age or background. All the companies I'm working with at the moment in some way or shape or form are dealing with some really tricky issues and some very challenging times. I think when you have those challenging times that's when you really understand what kind of employer you're working for. Is that employer being supportive of a real trend to help you and support you, even if they are out of work issues that are causing the concerns? I think for me that's a true test and they're the employers that I just absolutely love supporting because they will ultimately have the best businesses. You know, where you can forget about the bottom line and profit and just let the business roll and then the business itself becomes successful. 


Is there one piece of advice that you can give to people that is the biggest HR mistake that people make?


Finalists would be: It's not compulsory, but it should be, to have a job description through the whole employee lifecycle from the adverts to the recruitment to the interview to the performance management to the exit to the redundancy, if that's needed. Some companies just don't have them so it's very hard to support those processes without basic facts of knowing what somebody should be doing at work. That would be my number one tip. My second tip is also something that's not compulsory. To have a company handbook. Contractually you have to have written terms. It's the rules of how the business works and it works both ways. So that would be my second tip, definitely get a handbook. In the absence of these two, this is where I see a lot of the problems. There are so many problems and these are the solutions. The third one would be train your line managers because your line managers are at the coalface and they are representing the business. If their managers aren't trained in basic managing people and aren't aware of what's in the handbook, or even from a statutory point of view, what they're president title to and how or what the obligations are as an employer, they can do quite a lot of damage. It's not fair. They have many tasks to do themselves, their day job, managing people, so definitely train your line managers

You've spoken a lot today about people who do all the right things, put all the steps in place. Do you get people calling you up who haven't done those things and then it all falls apart with a disaster and emergency calls?


It doesn't happen often because my model is working proactively with businesses, working with employees so their employees have access to me and working futures of future focus to put in place building blocks. I didn't want to be a consultancy where somebody would call me when something's gone wrong. I've had two calls this morning, on the way, on the train, with companies I've never heard about, to say, ‘This has happened how do I actually work through this.” I think if they'd been advised correctly to start, those issues wouldn't have happened. I handbook clear policies and practices but there are moments with clients you when I can't tell them what they should be doing. I'll give them options, generally low risk, medium risk and high risk. It really is up to them, to then choose which way they want to go down and invariably if they go the high risk option as long as I'm clear what the impact maybe could be, it's those situations that come back to bite them. Where it's a phone call to say ‘I know you said I probably shouldn't but I did because I just wanted the problem to go away.’ It happens very rarely now which is great but there are moments when things just do happen and you can't predict them. That's challenging, it's challenging for businesses. 


We're going into the Christmas party season or the silly season and that can be a little bit high risk especially when a few too many drinks are involved. Do you have any hot tips or any insight for surviving the workplace Christmas party?


It's very typical, as you say. Next week we've got a webinar about how to handle the Christmas party. My top tips would be to have a policy in place about consuming alcohol when it's deemed a working event. So a Christmas party would be a working event. I would also think about restrictions of alcohol, the free beer, the free wine, the unlimited tokens, for example. Very generous but not really a good idea. Believe you me, although I get invited to most clients Christmas parties, now I generally don't attend because I know in January I'll be picking up the calls of what's happened. I think from from that point of view, be very clear about your liability and know that there is a liability, and a duty of care, when you take employees out for any social event but certainly Christmas parties. Try and limit the tokens and limit the amount of alcohol that you provide free of charge. I would always suggest you try keep somebody there who can stay sober, so somebody's not going to actually indulge. That might be a director, for example. I've had countless years, in January, trying to piece together hazy situations when it really is, ‘I really can't remember, I think at that point I just blacked out.’ It happens in every January but I think what employees are now doing, is they're more savvy and they actually know the only liability is there for the employer. Incidentally yesterday on an employment law seminar there's a current case with a very well-known organization in the UK about a Christmas party where a gentleman had too much to drink and picked up one of his female colleagues and dropped her on the dance floor. She suffered a severe back injury and she's now suing the organisation. It's still being worked for in terms of the out. So there is a liability there, don't assume there isn't. Reduce the drinks as much as you can. What happens after they leave the party? Mmm, is it is their choice? Then also definitely just try and keep some people who are able to keep control of the situation and identify any scenarios that could be a problem later. Stay on the line, communicate that policy out as well make sure it's communicated to everybody before you commence with your Christmas festivities.

Amy Roberts

Content creator forever living out a suitcase, eating vegetables, and ogling over indoor plants.

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